Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Twenty years later…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Jean Louise Finch is returning from New York to her childhood home in the small town of Maycomb in Alabama, to pay a visit to her family. She is met from the train by Henry – Hank – her childhood friend, then sweetheart. He’s hoping that this time she’ll finally agree to marry him and settle down back in Maycomb. Jean Louise isn’t sure what she wants – she loves Hank and feels a great sense of homecoming as the train pulls through her own country, but she’s also grown to love her life in New York. Seeing her hometown and the people she’s known all her life through the fresh eyes of different experiences makes her re-assess all the certainties that are the foundation of what she believes about herself…

I tried to listen to this when it first came out, but was hampered by my feeling that Lee may have been unfairly manipulated at the end of her life to allow it to be published. I also struggled with Reese Witherspoon’s Southern accent. Which proves that one’s subconscious has more impact than one sometimes thinks – this time around, some years on and now keen to read the book, I found Witherspoon’s narration a first-rate performance, bringing the character of Jean Louise as a young woman and of her younger self as the child Scout completely to life. And suddenly my difficulties with the accent disappeared!

There were two factors that changed my reluctance to read the book into eagerness. Firstly, when the book came out early reviews expressed shock at the portrayal of Atticus as a racist. I had never felt quite as hero-worshipping of Atticus as many people, but this did seem like an odd departure from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then, however, I have re-read Mockingbird for the first time in many years, and I realised I didn’t feel it really does have the strong anti-racist message it is held to have. Instead, I thought that Atticus was a man defending the rule of law – the fact that in this case he was also defending a black man seemed somewhat incidental. The message was not so much that black people were equal than that all people, however unequal within society, were entitled under the Constitution to equal treatment within the justice system. It’s a subtle difference, but important.

The second factor was my recent read of the excellent Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), in which she tells the tale of the true crime about which Lee tried and failed to write a book. In her book, Cep goes into some depth on Lee’s writing career, and the difficulties she had in writing another book after the wild success of Mockingbird. Although Cep doesn’t express an opinion on Go Set a Watchman as a literary work, she explains that it was in fact the book Lee wanted to write, and that it was her editor and publisher who persuaded her to write instead about the child Scout and the Maycomb of twenty years earlier. Given the success of Mockingbird, it can clearly be argued that was good advice. However, I found I really wanted to know what it was that Lee had wanted to say.

Gosh, that was a long preamble! In short, now that I was in the right frame of mind for it, I discovered this is a very good book in its own right, and not so far from the characters portrayed in Mockingbird after all.

On set with “Atticus” – Harper Lee and Gregory Peck

The time is just after the Supreme Court decision that led to desegregation of schools in the South, when the NAACP were fighting for equality for blacks and the whites were resisting. Jean Louise is shocked to discover that her father, Atticus, and lover, Hank, are part of that white resistance. As a child, watching her father defend black people and his unfailing courtesy to all people of whatever colour, young Scout unthinkingly assumed he believed in equality. Now with her experience in the North, Jean Louise feels seriously out of step with the attitudes and beliefs of her family and friends, and she finds herself becoming unmoored, feeling that she can no longer admire and love the people who have been the rock on which her life has been built. It’s partly a coming-of-age story, as Jean Louise begins to learn the difference between the ease of loving a golden hero and the difficulty of continuing to love when the gilt peels off, showing the tarnished imperfection beneath.

But it also gives a brutal insight into the attitudes of many white Southerners at this turning point in history. Jean Louise herself is hardly what we would think of today as an enlightened champion of civil rights, and Atticus, though he explains himself eloquently, holds attitudes which are pretty shocking. That’s what literature is all about though – what a refreshing change from the facile liberal virtue-signalling of contemporary literature about race, gender, etc. These characters are true and believable – they are of their time and made from their own history. Lee doesn’t demand that we like them or agree with them (though one suspects she herself agreed with Jean Louise), but she lays out their arguments so that at least we understand them, and she shows them as fundamentally good and well-meaning people, so that it’s impossible to write them off casually as “racist”, “white supremacist”, “Nazi”, and all the other terms we bandy around today whenever anyone says anything we don’t like. Lee shows the resonating impact of the Civil War, still only a couple of generations ago for the older people; the ongoing resentment of the South to being told how to live their lives by those in the distant corridors of federal power; the fear of the white people of the destruction of their way of life. Agree or not, understanding these things is a first essential if we are ever to really move past them.

As a literary work, the book isn’t perfect. There’s a little too much polemical stuff disguised as dialogue, and sometimes Jean Louise’s reactions seem overly dramatic. It’s told in the third person but sometimes drifts into Jean Louise’s thoughts which are then given in first person. This works fine on the page but not quite so well on audio, when it’s difficult to distinguish between when she’s thinking and when she’s speaking. And Lee assumes that her audience will know things like what the Supreme Court decision was about and what the Tenth Amendment says. Google is a boon!

But there’s real excellence here too – the parts where Jean Louise reminisces about her childhood are wonderful, with all the warmth and humour of Mockingbird. Maycomb again becomes a character in its own right, though a more modern and somewhat faster, more anxious place than it used to be. The characterisation shows all the same insight and brilliance – despite their often shocking views, I grew to care about them all.

Harper Lee

I must admit I got progressively angrier at the editors who chose to drive the young début novelist in a different direction rather than helping her to polish this into the literary perfection it deserves. I can’t help wondering, if Lee had been given more encouragement to write about the things she thought important rather than those that her publisher thought (rightly) would sell, would she have had so much difficulty producing other books? Would she have become a major voice helping us to understand the troubled psyche of the South? We’ll never know, but if I could go back in time, I’d whisper to her – have faith in yourself, Nelle, and write what you think the world needs to read…

Despite its flaws, then, highly recommended. Leave your hero-worship of Atticus behind and accept him as an imperfect man from a different era – I bet you’ll still find something in him to admire…

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49 thoughts on “Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

    • I’m really glad I got over my distaste – it’s well worth reading. And so is Furious Hours – very interesting on how this draft turned into Mockingbird, and on how Mockingbird’s success impacted on Lee’s life. I’m never convinced a runaway success for a debut novel is a good thing for a young writer in the long run…

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one so well, FictionFan. I think you make an especially good point that Lee managed to show the characters’ attitudes in a way so that one can understand them. And, as you say, learning why people feel as they do is the first step in communicating with them, and, in this case, hopefully getting past the bigotry and far worse of those attitudes. You make a well-taken point about the difference between commitment to the rule of law, and anti-racism. I also liked the wit in it. For instance, I loved that scene where Jean Louise changes her clothes on the way to Alabama, because she knows she’ll get asked why she’s dressed Like That. There’s just something about the way that conveys the culture.

    • I’m glad now I didn’t force myself to read it when it came out – all kinds of things, not least current events, have made me far more receptive to it today than even just a few years ago. Which in itself is an example of how minds can be changed, but rarely by hurling blanket insults at people with different views! I thought this was a more honest account than Mockingbird, much though I admire it too, and made no attempt to sanitize the issues. It’s always good to be reminded that people’s views are largely formed by circumstance rather than personality, and can therefore change if we change those circumstances. Yes, I loved the wit too – like the shock horror over the midnight bathing!

  2. I understand your hesitance to try this one, but I’m glad you ended up enjoying it in the end 🙂 Sometiems it’s hard to let go of our nostalgia and embrace the change, no matter how controversial, so well done.
    Wonderful review!

    • Thank you! Yes, I think it was the shock of Atticus being so different when the book first came out, and that led to a spate of horrified reviews, which mine probably would have been too if I’d forced myself to finish it at that time. But both books are really more subtle and nuanced than we often think – I just wish she had written more…

  3. I thought that in many ways this was a far better book than Mockingbird and I know that our Americans Studies Department thought it was a far more accurate representation of the attitudes of the time. One of my book groups read this the week before the Brexit referendum and I made the point that I thought it illustrated exactly why the vote would go Brexit’s way. I was shouted down but even so it gave me no pleasure to be proved right eight days later.

    • I agree completely. Mockingbird is undoubtedly more polished and finished, but it’s also, dare I say it, a bit bland and even sanitized – kinda literary comfort reading. (I don’t mean to sound dismissive – I do love Mockingbird, but I don’t think it quite deserves the idolatry it tends to get.) This one is much more brutally honest, I felt, and therefore has more depth and more significance. I wish it had had the opportunity to get the same editorial attention as Mockingbird when Lee was young enough to revise it thoroughly. And I do think it’s more important than ever that we understand the psyche of those who support Trump in America and Farage here – labelling them is too simplistic and achieves nothing…

  4. As far as I understand the history of Watchman, it is the original manuscript and Mockingbird was pulled from it, which explains why it seems disjointed and not as polished. And Atticus is not a racist, a Watchman is set (Atticus) to protect and convey. Atticus knew the African-Americans could not cope in a society after hundreds of years of tradition were suddenly dropped. He recognized you wouldn’t expect a baby to run. It would take time for them to acclimate to new freedoms, especially in the South. He kept watch, hence, he attended the meetings.

    • I liked that she explained Atticus’ motivation – it made it possible to understand where he was coming from, even if I’m sure the black people didn’t feel that they should be treated like children. But his attitudes would undoubtedly have been mainstream at the time, and judging him by today’s standards seems a bit pointless. That’s why I felt it was more honest than a lot of books written today, that imply “good” people didn’t have those attitudes – I bet they did, just as attitudes, including my own, to all kinds of things have changed during my lifetime. I cringe now thinking back to some of the things we all thought were okay when I was young…

  5. Thanks so much for this considered and informative discussion; like you I’d seen a lot of negative responses when this was first published, but your nuanced review really puts it into perspective. I’m more inclined to seek this out now, your post has put it into context and underlines that while being thought-provoking it also isn’t perfect — but then few novels are perfect, are they!

    • I’m glad now that I didn’t read it straight away since I’m sure I’d have had a negative reaction to it too, but Cep’s Furious Hours really gave me a different slant on it – not because she discusses the book, which she doesn’t really, but because she explained how it morphed into Mockingbird and gave me a lot of background context. And the two books actually do work together well, since this feels very much like grown-up Scout reassessing what she took for granted in her childhood. If you do read it, I hope it works as well for you as it did for me. 🙂

  6. I saw so much negativity surrounding this novel when it first came out, I really didn’t care about reading it. Your thoughtful review (along with some rather profound observations!) makes me feel otherwise. I only read TKAM a few years ago and, while I really enjoyed it, never put it up on a pedestal. I think I’ll put this on my wish list.

    • Me too, Kelly, and I’m actually quite glad I didn’t read it back then, since I think my kneejerk reaction would have been pretty negative too. But, like you, I enjoyed Mockingbird but not to the point where I felt that Atticus was untouchable, so I didn’t find the characterisation in this too jarring once I’d realised where it was going. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 🙂

  7. I’m delighted to read this review, FF, and I commend you for being fair and empathetic. I read both Mockingbird and Watchman — many years apart — and, despite having some initial misgivings over the latter, I found them both enjoyable. You’ve said it well, my friend — “These characters are true and believable – they are of their time and made from their own history.” We err when we expect them to think and behave the way we’ve come to think and behave today. Nor can we expect long ago cavemen to be jet-setters!

    • Thanks, Debbie! Yes, when I think of how attitudes have changed even in my lifetime, including my own, to all kinds of things about race and gender especially, then I think we have to really stop judging people in the past by today’s standards. I’m pretty sure people of the future will look at us and shake their heads too, even though we’re doing the best we can. And that’s kinda what I felt about these characters – that they were doing the best they could, given their circumstances.

  8. This is a wonderful review. I felt like this book has gotten some unfair treatment by people who are too in love with Atticus Finch. I’ve never really understood that mindset – I think it has more to do with the film than the book perhaps. Watchman is a good book on its own merit, and it’s also a peek into the process of creating TKAM, so for that alone I think it’s worth the read. I do wonder what might have been if Lee had different editors, or if they’d pushed her into a different direction…

    • Thanks, Laila! Yes, I think you’re right – the Atticus of the film is much more purely “good” than the one in the book ever was, I think. I was ready to be intrigued but maybe not impressed by this one, but actually like you I ended up thinking it’s a very good book in its own right – maybe even better than Mockingbird in terms of its depth, though it could have done with a bit more polishing. We’ll never know what could have been for Lee, but I do wish she’d been encouraged to take her own path even if it didn’t result in the phenomenal success of Mockingbird…

  9. Wonderful review! I particularly appreciated your point that Atticus’ reason for acting was because he put the law above all else.
    I’d love to learn what a reader who hadn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird made of Go Set a Watchman. It seems as if everyone in the world has read Mockingbird, watched the movie, studied it and then we all come to Watchman with a history. Looking forward to your review of Furious Hours 😀

    • Thank you! Yes, she makes it much clearer in this one too that the law was Atticus’ main focus rather than race. I have a feeling that as time passes and people forget their concerns about whether Lee was manipulated into releasing this book, this one will grow in stature and eventually be regarded as highly as Mockingbird, though maybe without the same love. Furious Hours is brilliant – I really must write my review! I’m so glad I read it, and that it inspired me to read this one… 😀

  10. I thought it was a really realistic portrayal of an elderly man as he just didn’t want things to change in his neighbourhood , something that many old people would identify with.

    • Yes, indeed – we’re still having the same debate today over culture changes on both sides of the Atlantic. And I hadn’t thought about the point she made, that for the older people the Civil War was still living history – that Atticus’ grandfather had fought in it. I know how much WW2 still hung over everything while I was growing up, and coloured our view of Germany. Took decades for that to pass…

  11. Wow, this review. You make me want to read it right now. Or listen to RW! You are so spot-on and thoughtful in everything you said, and it actually makes my heart ache to think of her being stifled as a writer because of this experience with the publisher and writing of Mockingbird. I really can’t stand the sense of loss of potential there. I definitely want to read the other book you mentioned as well.

    • Thanks, Jennifer! Yes, I’m still angry at the idea that she was pushed in a different direction even if it did mean she produced such a huge success as Mockingbird. Maybe it would have made no difference if she’d been able to publish this one, but maybe it would have… Hopefully, I’ll get around to writing my review of Furious Hours soon – definitely worth reading!

  12. I’ve never been an Atticus devotee either – I agree with Laila above that perhaps this extreme adoration is brought on more by the film (Gregory Peck could probably make me admire any character 😜). I wonder if the resistance of Atticus’ character in Watchman has to do with the fact that he’s only been known as an adult – therefore, why should we expect him to “change” in the story? I realize this is a critique of the reception of the book, but I admire that Harper Lee kept her characters alive and realistic – rather than preserving them for the sake of readers’ expectations.
    I did find the tease of romance a little endearing at the beginning, but I too wanted more of the societal and/or moral commentary side of the novel.

    • Yes, I do think the film has kinda taken over from the book in forming our view of Atticus. I think everybody was maybe expecting another version of Mockingbird, but this is a much harder, edgier kind of book – not the rather sanitized version that Mockingbird is. Overall, although I think Mockingbird is more polished, I think I prefer this one because it seems truer to me. I did feel a bit sorry for Hank, though – Jean Louise seemed very willing to be judgemental…

      • I definitely agree with you – except on feeling sorry for Hank. I think Jean Louise’s hesitancy was realistic because of her struggle with how her father seemed to have changed (in her eyes).
        Anyhow, I do find it frustrating that Watchman is less polished (understandably so), because there’s so much I want to delve into but I can’t shake the feeling of being restricted, re: the circumstances surrounding the novel’s publication. It’s agonizing, ha.

        • Yes, it was a pity about the way it was published and all the hype and hoopla that went on at the time. But I do think as we get further away from that, this book will gradually come to be recognised as being important in its own right. I just wish she had written more.

  13. I’m so glad to read your review. I have a copy of this and have been reluctant to read it (largely due to questions of whether or not it should have been published at all) but now I’m really looking forward to it.

    • It’s a pity about the way it was published – I think it left a lot of us reluctant to read it. But now that I’ve read it and realise both that it’s good in its own right and that it says something very different to Mockingbird, I think it’s possible Lee maybe did want to have it published finally. I’m pretty sure you’ll find lots in it to admire…

  14. I read Mockingbird a few years ago, as an adult, and though I liked it I definitely never loved it as much as some – and, though I was impressed by Atticus, this was more because he came across as a caring and compassionate father than because he was literally just doing his job. I wasn’t going to read Go Set a Watchman because some of the reviews I read suggested that it came across as a rambling first draft (and because of the ethical concerns), but it sounds very interesting, actually – I think I’ll give this a try after all.

    • I think Mockingbird is ageing a bit. When I first read it many years ago, I accepted it at face value as how things were back then, but on a recent re-read it felt a bit sanitized – the portrayal of the black people especially didn’t ring true to me. This one doesn’t really feel like a first draft, I think – the two books are very different. This one actually seems to me to give a much more credible picture of the South at that moment. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  15. Your review brings up the very important point of ‘why do we still teach TKAM in schools? There is much better literature that depicts that time, but there you have it. Anyway, I think I’d have to re-read TKAM to get into this book, because it’s been so long since I’ve read TKAM-like, cringe, basically 20 years ago!

    • When I re-read Mockingbird recently, I read several of the 1-star reviews on Goodreads, and they were nearly all from schoolkids, often black, who didn’t feel at all about the book the way people of my age did. I don’t think it’s ageing terribly well. This one stands alone, I think, and is a much harder, truer depiction of the South at that time. I suspect over time this one will grow in reputation…

  16. Great review! I read this back in 2015 when it was published, and I immediately read To Kill A Mockingbird (for the 3rd time) afterwards. I was very hesitant to read GSAW after all of the bad reviews, and I was really surprised that I liked the book as much as I did. It was interesting to read them both back-to-back. I could really see how GSAW morphed into TKAM and how she shifted themes and adjusted the characters.

    • Thank you! I can see why so many people were shocked when it first came out, but I think all the bad reviews do it a real disservice – I think it’s a very good book in its own right, even if it could have done with a bit more polishing.

  17. I didn’t want to read this as I thought it was a discarded first draft she’d been pushed into publishing, but you’ve changed my mind completely! Its so interesting that this was the first draft, but she was persuaded to rewrite it. I’ll look forward to your review of Furious Hours.

    • I don’t think it reads like a first draft at all – more like a completely different book. I can see why people think of it as a sequel, although I feel the style is much more hard-hitting. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it if you get a chance to fit it in.

  18. What a brilliant review! To Kill A Mockingbird is my favourite book and I felt so disappointed by Go Set A Watchman. I don’t think I’ll go back and read it but you’ve made me really think and reflect back now and I understand what you mean by trying to put aside all thoughts of perfection when it comes to Atticus, this book is completely different in that respect. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book and you did an excellent job of putting them across!

    • Thank you! 😀 I love Mockingbird but maybe not quite as much as a lot of people, and that might have helped me to accept the characters in this one more. But I must say it was really Casey Cep’s Furious Hours that made me open to this one – she does a brilliant job of explaining what Harper Lee was trying to do with both books. I really must write my review of that one soon!

  19. Thank you FF for drawing my attention to Watchman. I hadn’t given it much thought, and just had an impression that I didn’t need to read it. I now know I do need to read it. I love your observations about how this book causes the reader to reflect again on Mockingbird and to consider how Harper Lee’s voice was constrained.

    • I’m so glad that reading Furious Hours gave me the push to finally read this – it’s so much better than the early reviews suggested. I think people were just shocked at the difference between the two books, but I do think that together they give a much rounder and more believable picture than Mockingbird alone. This one isn’t as polished but somehow those rough edges work. I hope you find it worth reading!

  20. You summed this up really well! I love Atticus, and despite not agreeing with his views on equality as a race I understand where he gets those ideas. She does a good job of showing real characters and their motivations.

    • Thank you! Yes, I much prefer authors who give us some insight into how people really think and behave, rather than making them all conform to whatever is considered politically correct at the time of writing. I found Atticus in Watchman credible and even admirable, although his views aren’t mine either.

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